Published by Pushkin Press, 2019.
The Tunnels Below is Nadine Wild-Palmer’s début novel and it’s an original, wonderfully imagined story. It’s Cecilia’s twelfth birthday. She and her family are going out in London for the day to celebrate. They are travelling on the underground when Cecilia drops the marble that her sister gave her for her birthday. She runs back onto the tube to pick it up, but the doors close and she’s carried away on an strangely empty underground train into the darkness. The train whizzes past stations she doesn’t recognise, eventually stopping at a disused station. Cecilia steps onto the platform. The train’s doors close and it speeds off again leaving her lost in the darkness. There’s nobody else on the platform and no signs to indicate where she is. It’s a tense and exciting start to the story and I found it really quite unsettling.
It turns out that Cecilia is not alone. There’s a whole community of dwellers living underground. Except the creatures that inhabit this underground world are part human, part animal. They walk upright, wear clothes and have human bodies but their heads are animal. The first dweller that Cecilia meets is a fox-face called Kuffi. He’s kind and takes Cecilia under his wing. He guides her and protects her, introducing her to how this strange new world works.
It’s a fantastically imagined and strikingly original subterranean world. It’s built around a series of tunnels connected to plazas. Homes are cubbies, dens and hives. There’s no natural light, so the dwellers make inventive use of mirrors to maximise the little light that there is and trap fireflies in jars. Buttons are a precious commodity and used as currency. For me, some of the highlights of this magical world were the musical instrument shop where you can actually taste the music as you play; the spectacle of the Ride or Sigh competition; and the thrilling flying carpet ride.
This underground world is controlled by the sinister Jacques d’Or, an albino magpie, and his crows – the Corvus Community. It’s a brutal regime. They claim to be keeping the peace and protecting the dwellers but they are actually using fear to control them: fear of the light going out for good. There’s no natural light underground and the tunnels are lit by fluorescent tubes. They are powered by a generator, Mr Sparks, which requires a constant supply of saline water to function. This is provided by the lake of light which is full of tear drops; dwellers are obliged to perform weekly lamentations at its shores to keep it topped up. In order to increase the production of tears, the Corvus regime intends to keep morale amongst the dwellers at an all time low and snuff out hope.
Part way into the story, Kuffi is arrested by the Corvus crows because he hasn’t renewed his identity papers in time. He is imprisoned in the Nest. Cecilia’s mission then becomes twofold: now she must rescue Kuffi and find a way back to her family. She is helped on her quest by a young stag-face called Luke. It also transpires that her marble has far more significance to this underground community than she could have imagined.
The book’s themes of loyalty, friendship and family are strong. I enjoyed the struggle against the literal and metaphorical darkness imposed by Jacques d’Or and his Corvus crows. The Tunnels Below is a richly layered, inventive story full of tension and excitement.
Suitable for children aged 8+
Thank you to Pushkin Press for sending me this book to review.